SEBRING - An appeals court sided last week with four counties that sued the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for improperly shifted juvenile detention costs to local governments.
As for Highlands, the county had already taken care of its own problem, Sheriff Susan Benton said.
"Over the years, the county was billed approximately $600,000 to $700,000 a year," Benton said. "However, Highlands County is considered a fiscally constrained county, and as a result those counties who met that criteria were exempt from that payment to the Department of Juvenile Justice."
The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an administrative law judge's ruling last year in a case brought by Nassau and Okaloosa counties and joined by Bay and Pinellas counties.
The 2011 Legislature had passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 2112, authorizing counties to independently operate their own juvenile detention centers, and in October 2011, the state closed Polk Detention Center.
DJJ required counties to pay detention costs for arrested juveniles who were found guilty or committed to state detention facilities. But the administrative law judge ruled last year the department's interpretation was too narrow.
A three-judge appeals court agreed: "Here, a plain reading of 'final court disposition' cannot, as DJJ asserts, limit the term to 'commitment,'" the appeals court ruled.
Fifty-seven Highlands juveniles were committed to the Bartow facility during an 18-month period. Benton said the average is 4-5 per day staying there.
"Highlands County has been fortunate in regard to juvenile pre-adjudication detention costs," Benton said. "Once the DJJ closed down the Bartow detention center and Polk County Sheriff's Office began to house their own pre-adjudicated youth, (Polk County) Sheriff (Grady) Judd, (Hardee County) Sheriff (Arnold) Lanier and I worked out a plan where our local youth would also be housed in pre-adjudication status at the Polk County Jail, juvenile detention section."
The Polk County sheriff saved his taxpayers almost $3 million dollars by housing their own pre-adjudicated youth, Benton said. And instead of $200 per day that the DJJ was charging, Highlands and Hardee paid $60 to $65 per day, Benton said.
All three counties are in Circuit Court 10, so many court hearings were held in Polk County anyway, Benton said.
"For other hearings, the youths are transported back to the county of jurisdiction to appear before the local judge," Benton said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story